No Need for Cleverness

When the bell rings to end the first period of morning meditation, we continue the monastic tradition of reciting a short vow to save all sentient beings. In Buddhism, sentient beings are said to be composed of what are known as the five aggregates – form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. It is the last, consciousness, that most uniquely characterizes life.

Emerging from the warm, dark womb, all beings become aware that they are alive, sensing that they are in a new, hostile environment, and instinctively turn to their mothers for nourishment and protection. They stay in this dependent state for a period of time, depending on the species. Some are given their independence sooner than others. It depends on how the initial, fuzzy awareness evolves into a more precise perception of what is needed to survive, developing problem-solving skills that avoid dangers and obtain life-giving resources.

All living creatures require these skills, along with the continuous awareness of what is taking place in their environment. Independent of species, depending on their capacity to be creative, they develop a degree of cleverness in how they apply their awareness and skills. We all share this aspect of cleverness, necessary for sustaining ordinary, everyday life. Because it is universal and impersonal, it is innocent, but it can turn into something else when greed appears, when we crave more than we need for appreciating life. A scheming cleverness, motivated by ego and self-gratification, may provide temporary satisfaction but in the long run brings no joy.

When it comes to understanding and nurturing our spiritual life, we have no need for cleverness. Intellect and knowledge are not required to understand or engage in the authentic, universal way of life that includes, but goes beyond, ordinary affairs. Wisdom is available to everyone, not only to gifted people. So if we sometimes feel that we are less than gifted, we need to replace that doubt with trust, with the confidence that we can live according to the truth, without compromise and without delusion.

Zen practice is founded on the ancient insight that everyone is inherently enlightened, emphasizing that everything we do in our everyday life is the manifestation of Buddha’s activity, the worldly expression of our spiritual nature. That is why Zen practice insists on fully utilizing attributes we already have – energy, skills, interests, and intuition. We should employ them to the limits of their capacity, to do as much as we can in any situation. Rather than saying, “I can’t” before trying to do something, it would be better to say, “If I reach a limit, I will explore trying to go beyond.”

To express our inherent spirituality, we cannot be casual with our attitude towards our life. We need to start with a strong incentive to understand its meaning, to know the reason for our own existence. It is a serious matter, requiring that we give up ideas of gaining something from practice, that we pay attention, that we not deceive ourselves. The modern world nods in approval at our efforts to increase possessions and pursue success. However, with that orientation, we will rely on cleverness, always on the lookout for opportunities for material or emotional gain, like a cat silently stalking a bird. And even though we may obtain what society tells us we should value, we can never be fully satisfied. Rather, our life will feel constrained by pursuing possessions. Employing cleverness to chase after personal achievement gets in the way of appreciating life. Constraints drop away when we approach life as a matter of spiritual practice.

What does cleverness mean in face of truth, in the midst of transiency and impermanence? Mistakenly seeing the things of our life as permanent causes us to pursue them with intensity. But when we appreciate impermanence, we will give up the unrealistic pursuit of material and ego possessions, understanding how life really goes. Spiritual practice enables us to understand the true nature of our life, as a skilled carpenter understands the material he is working with, preventing splinters by not going against the grain. Just like the carpenter, we need to understand the nature of the material we are working with. Suffering occurs when we go against the grain.

Spiritual practice includes keeping our effort consistent in daily life, not varying up or down, on or off, pulled this way and that by ideas of like or dislike. Not caught up in scheming cleverness, we will emphasize the unique content of each moment that is calling for our attention. Practice emphasizes doing what must be done, not putting it off or taking a shortcut for a superficial reason. With this attitude, our mind becomes stable and balanced, accompanied by a feeling of inner warmth. This engaged attitude is independent of intellectual capacity or skill; it only requires selfless determination and the feeling of the transient nature of things.